FCC's Wheeler pressures CTIA to clarify carriers' phone unlocking policy

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is pushing the CTIA to amend its policies so that carriers would be more proactive in allowing consumers to unlock their phones. Wheeler said the CTIA and the wireless industry should act by year-end or expect the FCC to issue regulations on the issue.

Wheeler, a former CTIA president himself, is adding impetus to an issue that has been gaining momentum this year, as more government agencies have come behind the idea that consumers need more freedom to unlock their mobile devices.

In the letter to CTIA President Steve Largent, Wheeler wrote that any unlocking policy must "provide a clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on unlocking," and should unlock mobile wireless devices "for customers, former customers, and legitimate owners when the applicable service contract, installment plan, or early termination fee has been fulfilled." Further, he wrote, carriers should "affirmatively notify customers when their devices are eligible for unlocking and/or automatically unlock devices when eligible, without an additional fee." Wheeler also wrote that carriers "process unlocking requests or provide an explanation of denial within two business days," and that carriers unlock devices for military personnel upon deployment.

"It appears that CTIA and the FCC are in agreement on all but the third item regarding consumer notification," Wheeler wrote. "Absent the consumer's right to be informed about unlocking eligibility, any voluntary program would be a hollow shell."

Wheeler said the FCC's staff has been working on the issue with the CTIA for eight months and wants to resolve it soon. "Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate," he wrote. "Let's set a goal of including the full unlocking rights policy in the CTIA Consumer Code before the December holiday season."

The hubbub over unlocking intensified in March after the Obama administration said it supports consumers who want to unlock their mobile phones without fear of breaking the law. The administration urged legislative fixes to remedy a recent government ruling on the topic that removed protections for people who do unlock their phones. The White House's statement was prompted by a petition on the issue that received more than 114,00 signatures.

The ruling on unlocking, from the Library of Congress, concerns the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and was issued in October 2012. In effect, the Library of Congress, which governs copyright law, said that there is no copyright exemption for unlocking cellphones, making unauthorized unlocking potentially illegal.

In September, at the Obama administration's direction, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration petitioned the FCC to mandate that carriers unlock mobile phones and tablets free of charge and let customers who have met their contractual obligations switch to another carrier.

"Americans should be able to use their mobile devices on whatever networks they choose and have their devices unlocked without hassle," NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a statement at the time. The NTIA also added in a statement that the proposed rule "would shift the burden associated with device unlocking onto the carriers that imposed the locks, and ensure they consistently do so in a way that is both expeditious and transparent."

Scott Bergmann, CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a statement the trade group is interested in working with Wheeler and the FCC on the issue. "Today's U.S. consumers have a wide variety of unlocked device and liberal carrier unlocking policies available to them," he said. "CTIA also continues to advocate for the passage of 'The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act' (H.R. 1123), which would address consumer confusion about unlocking as a result of the 2012 decision of the Librarian of Congress. While CTIA supports giving consumers a robust set of options, it is important for consumers to note that an unlocked phone doesn't necessarily mean an interoperable phone, given the technological and engineering realities of wireless networks."

The bill Bergmann referenced, which was introduced in March by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), would, as the Congressional Budget Office explains, repeal the October 2012 ruling and reinstate an earlier rule that provided broader authority to unlock phones. The bill would also direct the Librarian of Congress to consider, within a year after enactment, whether to extend that broader authority to other categories of wireless devices in addition to smartphones.

As CTIA notes, an unlocked phone is not necessarily an interoperable phone. For instance, phones that work on AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) network are unlikely to work on Sprint's (NYSE:S) network since the two carriers use different technologies and spectrum bands.

For more:
- see this FCC letter (PDF)
- see this AllThingsD article
- see this The Verge article

Related Articles:
NTIA pushes FCC to mandate free cell phone unlocking
AT&T crows of unlocking policy; new legislation would protect unlocking
White House throws support behind unlocking phones
FCC's Genachowski: We'll investigate ruling on unlocked phones
Petition against unlocked phones ruling will force White House response
T-Mobile, Ting respond to rules requiring carrier approval to unlock phones